[Episcopal News Service] Wisconsin has three Episcopal dioceses but, as of Jan. 1, only one active, full-time bishop. On a cold morning in late January, that bishop was working from a hotel in the small, northwestern city of Eau Claire.
“Presumably, once it feels safer with COVID, I’ll be over here with some regularity,” the Rt. Rev. Matthew Gunter, bishop of Fond du Lac, told Episcopal News Service by phone from his hotel room. Gunter, hoping to get “a better sense of people here,” was in the middle of a weeklong introductory tour of the Diocese of Eau Claire, which had elected him in November as provisional bishop for two years. He planned later that day to visit clergy and lay leaders at Episcopal congregations in Owen, Conrath and Lugerville.
This year, the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin is in a time of transition after back-to-back bishop retirements. The Rt. Rev. William Jay Lambert retired in November as Eau Claire’s part-time bishop, followed a month later by Bishop Steven Miller, who retired after 17 years leading the Diocese of Milwaukee. Gunter, Fond du Lac’s bishop since 2014, took over for Lambert on Jan. 1, and for the first six weeks of this year, he also served as Milwaukee’s assisting bishop. The Diocese of Milwaukee, which includes six of the state’s 10 largest cities, is preparing to welcome the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee on April 1 for a two-year stint as part-time provisional bishop.
The dioceses of Fond du Lac, Eau Claire and Milwaukee share historical roots in the Diocese of Wisconsin, created in 1847, a year before Wisconsin became a state. Over the next 80 years, the original statewide diocese divided into three as Wisconsin’s population increased. Today, about 6 million people live in the state, though church membership is steadily declining in all three dioceses – down overall by nearly a third in the past decade.
The less-populated northern dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac nearly merged in 2011, but that plan ultimately was defeated in a close vote by the Fond du Lac diocesan convention. Now 10 years later, leaders from all three Wisconsin dioceses told ENS they are open to greater collaboration, whether experimenting together or following existing Episcopal partnership models. The dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, for example, agreed in October 2018 to share a bishop and seek other ways of combining administrative functions and pursuing joint ministries over five years. The dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan formalized a similar partnership in October 2019.
Eau Claire, with about 1,200 baptized members, and Fond du Lac, around 3,900, are two of The Episcopal Church’s smallest dioceses. Milwaukee is larger, with about 7,800 members. Even if Wisconsin were still all one diocese, it would have fewer Episcopalians than each of the 47 largest Episcopal dioceses.
“There were historical reasons why those dioceses were formed. Whether or not in the 21st century, given changing realities and numbers, it makes sense to continue [as three dioceses] is a different question,” Gunter said, but at this point, he isn’t advocating any particular path for the Wisconsin dioceses.
Eau Claire’s diocesan leaders had reached out to Gunter last year about the possibility of serving as provisional bishop. By the time of his election, Gunter and the two dioceses had worked out an arrangement in which Gunter would spend a third of his time serving Eau Claire over the two-year period, with Eau Claire reimbursing Fond du Lac that portion of his salary.
As bishop provisional, Gunter will assist the Diocese of Eau Claire in developing a “common vision” for its future and “discerning best models and practices for continuing its mission-focused strategies of ministry,” both within the diocese and across the state, according to the diocese’s written agreement with the bishop. Gunter arrives in Eau Claire amid a multiyear diocesan discernment process that was slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Typically, at the beginning of any transition, you’re just trying to get your bearings,” Gunter told ENS. “I think it would be safe to say that there is a moment here for the dioceses of Wisconsin to do some thinking about who we are and who we want to be and how we want to be in relationship with each other.”
Today, Wisconsin’s diocesan boundaries roughly divide the state into thirds. The Diocese of Milwaukee occupies the more populous southern third and includes the diocese’s namesake, with about 600,000 residents. It also includes the state’s capital, Madison, as well as a diverse mix of smaller suburban and rural communities.
The Diocese of Fond du Lac in the northeastern third of the state includes Green Bay; several smaller cities clustered around Lake Winnebago; and part of the sparsely populated Northwoods region, a popular outdoor seasonal tourism destination. The population of the northwestern third of the state sparer still. The Diocese of Eau Claire spans forest and farmland from the Mississippi River to Lake Superior, including only three cities with more than 20,000 residents.
More so than the other two dioceses, Eau Claire finds itself at a crossroads. Most of its 19 congregations count fewer than 60 members. All but two congregations in the diocese average fewer than 80 worshippers on a Sunday. Priests often serve multiple congregations, as does the Rev. Aaron Zook, priest-in-charge at churches in Chippewa Falls and Lafayette. He also is the diocese’s canon to the ordinary.
Many hats. “That’s kind of the way we do it in the Diocese of Eau Claire,” Zook told ENS.
Yet even at small congregations, longtime parishioners remain active and engaged with their churches, Zook said. “We’re retaining active ministries [in communities] that otherwise would not have anything at all, that wouldn’t have resources for that,” he said.
Small dioceses still can remain viable if they maintain their “capacity to proclaim the Gospel,” said Bishop Todd Ousley, who leads The Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development and assists dioceses with bishop searches. In some scenarios, a larger, well-resourced diocese may not match the mission vitality of a small diocese, he told ENS.
“The question on viability is really about how mission-focused are you, rather than how much money do you have in the bank,” Ousley said. He sees Eau Claire as “a great example for the church on how you can shift models and explore and, in the process, discover who you are and what God is calling you to be about.”
Wisconsin’s three dioceses trace their lineage to Bishop Jackson Kemper, a supporter of the high church Oxford Movement, who was consecrated in 1835 as missionary bishop of the Northwest. He founded the Nashotah House Theological Seminary, in the countryside between Milwaukee and Madison, and later led the Diocese of Wisconsin until his death in 1870.
In the two decades after becoming a state in 1848, Wisconsin saw its population more than triple to 1 million, and the number of parishes in the northeastern part of the state grew from three to 27, according to a history of the church in Wisconsin. In 1874, The Episcopal Church’s General Convention approved the creation of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, and the new diocese held its organizing convention in January 1875. The remaining Diocese of Wisconsin changed its name to the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1886.
Initially, the dioceses of Milwaukee and Fond du Lac both extended into the northwestern corner of the state. In 1928, General Convention backed the creation of the Diocese of Eau Claire, which was carved from the northwestern-most parts of the other two dioceses. The state’s geographical breadth made it “physically impossible” under the previous diocesan structure to serve the “steadily growing” northwest region, according to that year’s General Convention journal.
To Wisconsin’s west, the Diocese of Minnesota had been facing similar challenges ministering to a far-flung and growing population. In 1895, General Convention approved a separate missionary district in Minnesota’s booming northern mining region, and the northern region soon became the Diocese of Duluth. But Great Depression-era decline and depopulation forced Duluth to reunify in 1944 with its southern neighbor. Today, the statewide Diocese of Minnesota counts about 17,600 baptized members.
Wisconsin has maintained its three dioceses, but in 2008, the Diocese of Eau Claire reported “a serious budget shortfall and shortage of cash.” Eau Claire managed to offset its deficit only by an unexpected vacancy: Bishop Keith Whitmore resigned that year to become assisting bishop in the Diocese of Atlanta. It was the last time Eau Claire had a full-time diocesan bishop.
Diocesan leaders, while studying a range of alternatives, began talking with Fond du Lac leaders about the possibility of a merger through a process known in The Episcopal Church’s Canons as “junction,” but in June 2009, the two dioceses released a statement calling talk of junction “premature.”
Over the next two years, however, talks between the two dioceses resumed and gathered steam. In October 2011, Fond du Lac’s convention and Eau Claire’s convention each appeared to approve a plan to ask The Episcopal Church’s General Convention for a junction of the two dioceses. In Fond du Lac, however, the votes had been nearly evenly split for and against the plan, and a recount revealed it had been defeated by two votes in the lay order, despite winning the backing of the clergy order.
Lambert, consecrated in March 2013, was willing to serve as a part-time bishop, sparing Eau Claire the cost of a full-time salary. During his tenure, the diocese reduced its apportionment rate, which determines the amount congregations give to the diocesan budget, and it tightened diocesan expenses.
As Lambert approached the episcopate’s mandatory retirement age, he and diocesan leaders began considering the Diocese of Eau Claire’s next phase. In 2019, they formed a Transition Committee, which surveyed clergy and parishioners and researched the diocesan partnership models in Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York and in Eastern and Western Michigan. The committee’s final report in October 2019 suggested four options: recruit a new part-time bishop to replace Lambert; partner with another diocese while remaining independent; partner with another diocese as a step toward “closer organizational affiliation”; or continue the discernment process without yet committing to one of the other options.
The diocese chose the last option, and Gunter agreed to help with discernment, though that process has been slowed by the pandemic, Zook said.
The pandemic also disrupted the bishop search in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Rather than call a new diocesan bishop to take over when Miller retired at the end of 2020, the Standing Committee decided to postpone the search, instead calling Lee as provisional bishop to help the diocese discern its own next steps. Lee retired at the end of 2020 as bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Chicago in Illinois.
“One of the areas we’ve asked him to look into and work on is our relationship and connection with [the] other two Episcopal dioceses in the state,” the Rev. Scott Leannah, president of Milwaukee’s Standing Committee, told ENS by email.
Gunter spent 18 years as a parish priest in the Diocese of Chicago, serving under Lee for part of that time. He expects the two bishops will keep in conversation as Wisconsin’s three dioceses plan for the future. Even if the shape and leadership of the dioceses end up looking much like they have in the past, “there’s no reason why we ought not to be finding ways to coordinate and collaborate and share some of the ministries that we do,” Gunter said.
“I think the bottom-line question going forward is, what is going to enable the church to be about the Gospel and its mission?” he said. “How in the state of Wisconsin, in the several dioceses, can we most efficiently and effectively be about bearing witness to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ?”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.